Water lies at the center of our Christian sign of baptism and our current ecological crises and, thus, deserves deeper theological treatment. This paper explores visions of “redemption as rehydration” in the prophetic literature, then it traces resonant themes into the Apocalypse’s “river of the water of life” (Rev 22:1). It next explores how water provides a “metaphorical map of God” and why hydrologic systems should be a key characteristic of how humans dwell in creation. The paper concludes with a call to watershed-based discipleship as a faithful response to Christian mission amidst our looming environmental catastrophes..
“El agua es la vida!” –New Mexican proverb
“The health of our waters is the principle measure of how we live on the land.” –Luna Leopold
The ancient Christian ritual of baptism articulates an ecological fact: without water there can be no life. We rightly speak of baptismal waters as the symbolic source of renewal in Christ—a metaphor predicated in part upon the deep biblical tradition concerning “living waters” I will explore below. Today, however, Christians can no longer responsibly invoke this venerable tradition without also acknowledging the ecological realities of our context, which include the systematic dehydration of the earth by industrial civilization.
Deepening and interlocking environmental crises stalk our history, including climate destruction, species extinction, and declining natural fertility. Among these, one of the most pressing is “peak water.” Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute describes this as the critical point, already reached in many areas of the world, where we have overtaxed the planet’s ability to absorb the consequences of our water use. Its global symptoms include widespread desertification, water insecurity, declining water quality, and the drift toward international water wars. The grim specter of peak water represents the dark opposite of baptism; it portends only death. It is a keystone “sign of our times” that reveals afresh the old gospel imperative to “turn around” as an historic ultimatum.
End-game ecological trends press Christians to re-read our tradition from the perspective of the groaning creation, as did Paul in Romans 8:21–22—including and especially our theology and practices of mission. Water is a strategic place to start. It is the resource we North Americans arguably most take for granted—a privileged and unsustainable conceit that must change. This paper will argue for re-centering faith and mission around “watershed discipleship” as a matter of social justice, ecological sustainability, and theological fidelity. This imperative proceeds both from ancient biblical visions and current realities of water scarcity.
Prophetic Visions of Redemption as Rehydration
The biblical story begins (Gen 1:2) and ends (Rev 22) in a “waterworld.” This represents a primal scriptural expression of basic ecological truth: water is the single most important component in the birth and continuation of life—we might say, the Alpha and Omega of creation. Water thus deserves more careful social, ecological, and theological attention than it has received in our churches.
The first half of this paper will look at John the Revelator’s extraordinary eschatological vision of social and environmental restoration through a divine “rehydration” of the earth. John was clearly nurtured by a recurring strand in Hebrew prophetic literature, so let me begin by acknowledging this rich “imaginary” of an ancient desert people.
It remains a well-kept secret in our churches that the tradition of prophetic judgment in the Hebrew Bible articulates divine salvation most often in terms of the renewal—not destruction—of the earth. In Isaiah, for example, the imperial civilizations that surrounded (and oppressed) Israel are indeed promised demolition by divine judgment; the land, however, is rehabilitated through “rewilding,” as undomesticated animals re-inhabit decaying cities (13:19–22) and wild birds roost in abandoned fortresses (34:8–15).
One expression of redemption as the restoration of creation is found in prophetic visions of eschatological reforestation. Israel’s seers may have understood that the arid climate of their Palestinian homeland was not natural but rather the result of historic processes of desertification due to the relentless imperial economic exploitation of the land. Indeed, ecological archaeology has established that the ancient Mediterranean world was largely deforested by the time of the eighth-century prophets. This may explain their rage over the clear-cutting of highland hardwood forests (Zech 11:1ff.; Isa 14:3–8, 37:22–24; Solomon was also guilty: 1 Kgs 5:6ff.). They longed for Yahweh’s judgment that would save the threatened forests: “The cypresses exult over you, the cedars of Lebanon,” Isaiah inveighs against the king of Babylon, “saying, ‘Since you were laid low, no one comes to cut us down’ ” (Isa 14:8).
The most well-known example of this motif is found in Isaiah 35, which begins with the promise that parched lands will once again host “the glory of Lebanon” (Isa 35:1ff.; i.e., the great cedar forests of the north). The poem goes on to promise not only an end to human physical disabilities (35:3–6a) but the healing of creation itself:
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,
the grass shall become reeds and rushes. (35:6b–7)
Restored habitat brings the return of wild animals (see also Isa 43:20). And all this renewal is made possible because water is flowing again everywhere.
Second Isaiah echoes the idea that both people (especially those marginalized by empire) and forests will be restored:
When the poor and needy seek water,
and there is none, and their tongue is parched with thirst,
I the LORD will answer them, I the God of Israel will not forsake them.
I will open rivers on the bare heights,
and fountains in the midst of the valleys;
I will make the wilderness a pool of water,
and the dry land springs of water.
I will put in the wilderness the cedar, the acacia, the myrtle, and the olive;
I will set in the desert the cypress, the plane and the pine together. (Isa 41:17–19.)
Just as Pharaoh’s army was drowned in the old Exodus story (Exod 14), here the travails of empire similarly disappear under water.
The promise of rehydration recurs in the proto-apocalyptic oracles of several later Israelite prophets. Joel prophesies that “all the watercourses of Judah shall flow with water, and a spring shall issue from the House of the Lord and shall water the Wadi of the Acacias” (Joel 4:18; njps). Zechariah portends: “In that day, fresh water shall flow from Jerusalem, part of it to the Eastern Sea and part to the Western Sea, throughout the summer and winter” (Zech 14:8; njps). But the most elaborate development of this motif is found in Ezek 47:1–12, the culmination of his lengthy description of eschatological Israel, its land and temple-city (Ezek 40–48).
The first part of the oracle narrates in refrain how water is flowing out of the temple toward the four directions (47:1–2). Then comes another refrain in which the rising tide is measured, from ankle, to knee, to waist-deep, to “a river that could not be crossed” (47:3–5). Implied here is the rehabilitation of the Gihon spring that (inconsistently) supplied water to Jerusalem. Ezekiel then imagines Palestine “greened” all the way to the Dead Sea (47:6–12). But unlike the flood of Genesis 7, Ezekiel’s surging river is life-giving, indicated by the explosion of fecundity that occurs within and beside it: “everything will live where the river goes” (v. 9). The vision culminates with an ever-bearing, perennial riparian forest, providing food and medicine (v. 12). This nod to the Garden of Eden story is later re-appropriated by John the Revelator, effectively bracketing (like the waterworld image) the biblical story.
Israel during the biblical period was a dry place indeed, with only a couple of major rivers, few perennial streams, and unreliable springs. So these extraordinary visions of redemption as rehydration bear witness to the fact that in Palestine, water lay at the heart of environmental sustainability, social justice, and divine concern.
The River of the Water of Life
John of Patmos’s “river of the water of life” (Rev 22:1ff.) is patterned in part on Ezek 47. A careful examination of this image reveals a rich theological and ecological texture. First and foremost, this eschatological river stands in stark contrast to the realities of John’s late first-century CE readers. Those living in arid Mediterranean climate were familiar chiefly with the stagnant, torpid water found in small ponds, seasonal wells, catchment tanks, ritual baths, or clay pots. Domestic water quality was often poor (hence the advice of 1 Tim 5:23). John’s river, however, “shines like crystal” (lampron hōs krustallon; Rev 22:1; cf. 4:6). This is not a supernatural assertion but a poetic observation: pure water indeed appears crystalline when it is flowing freely (think of the dancing silver strands of a mountain stream). The phrase “river of the water of life” (potamon hudatos zoēs) connotes exactly that: the running, bubbling, lively water of a spring or brook. Experiences of such “living water,” as the Gospel of John puts it (hudōr zōn; John 4:10; 7:38), were rare indeed for this desert people. This signals a dramatic restoration of life to the land and those dwelling on it, just as the Hebrew prophets had envisioned.
John’s river, moreover, flows through “the middle of the great street of the city” (Rev 22:2; niv). The Greek term plateia connotes the main thoroughfare (or plaza) of a Hellenistic metropolis. Poignantly, earlier in the Apocalypse this plateia was the space of political violence, where the bodies of two prophets murdered by the imperial beast lay in public view for three and a half days as a spectacle of state terror (Rev 11:8–9). But now this street has become “pure gold, transparent as glass” (Rev 21:21). The New Jerusalem’s main street has dissolved into a river of life that washes away the blood of empire.
There is another way in which this river symbolizes liberation from empire. Elsewhere in Revelation the water of life is depicted as a spring (pēgē). The martyrs who live “before the throne of God . . . will not hunger or thirst anymore, nor will the sun or any heat strike them; for the Lamb who is in the center of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to springs of living water” (zoēs pēgas hudatōn; Rev 7:15–17; author’s translation). This is a pointed recontextualization of Isa 49:10, an oracle of emancipation. Moreover, this spring is a “gift” (Rev 21:6; tēs pēgēs tou hudatos tēs zoēs dōrean); “Let the one who thirsts come forward, and . . . receive the gift of living water” (22:17; hudōr zoēs dōrean; author’s translation). Here is more midrash on the subversive vision of second Isaiah—“All who are thirsty, come for water, even if you have no money” (Isa 55:1; njps)—which was a rebuke of the currency-dependent commodity markets of empire and a reassertion of the gift economy of nature.
Yet, these living waters are not springing up from the ground, but “proceeding from the throne of God and of the Lamb” (Rev 22:1; nkjv). This primal notion of Yhwh as a cosmic fount, too, is found in several places in the Hebrew Bible. “For with You is the spring of life,” sings the Psalmist (Ps 36:9; MT, mĕqôr ḥayîym; LXX, pēgē zoēs). And Jeremiah laments:
My people have committed two evils:
they have forsaken Me,
the fountain of living water (MT, mĕqôr mayim ḥayîym; LXX, )
and dug out cisterns for themselves,
cracked cisterns that can hold no water (Jer 2:13).
Lastly, as in Ezekiel 47, John’s freely and abundantly flowing river provides habitat for the tree of life, which yields spectacular fruits each month (Rev 22:2). Its twelve crops correspond to the central symbolic number of the Apocalypse (in which dōdeka appears 20 times). This figure also represents the restored nation of Israel, hearkening back to its roots in the tribal confederacy (a theme also explicitly addressed in Ezek 47:13–48:35). But for John of Patmos, this is an inclusive political vision. As in Ezekiel, the leaves of the tree are for healing, but here specifically for the nations, including presumably the “kings of the earth” who have been welcomed into the city (Rev 21:24). Even empire is healed in the end—but only when eclipsed by the ecology of life.
The Revelator has cosmically “transplanted” both tree and river from the primeval garden (Gen 2:9ff.) into the heart of the eschatological city. But the former has transfigured the latter: it is unrecognizable as an urban space—at least as defined by our civilization, which builds cities over and against nature. The New Jerusalem has been thoroughly “permaculturized,” a lush food forest taking the place of the hard urban jungle. And all because the world has been resaturated with the waters of life.
These prophetic visions represent profound articulations of social and environmental restorative justice from a people for whom dehydration was a daily reality. They speak equally sharply to today, in which our lands are again parched and compromised by imperial hubris. Hostage as we are to the specter of “peak water” and resource wars, we would do well to reconsider such old wisdom.
God’s Map: Theology and Geography
In a society characterized by (and dependent upon) the relentless commodification and privatization of the primary gift of life, how might we embrace the radical and compelling biblical hope that every thirst will be quenched? The task facing us is both theological and practical.
If all talk about God is necessarily metaphorical, then surely water is a primary theological trope, as suggested by the frequent biblical imagery identifying water tightly with the divine. Four essential characteristics of water certainly pertain also to the Creator.
First and foremost, as noted, there can be no life without water. It is the primary building block of creation, covering 71% of the earth’s surface and constituting on average 60% of the human body. It restores but cannot be destroyed—though if it is degraded it can lose its healing character.
Second, water is the only natural element that can exist in all three common states: liquid, solid, and gaseous. Moreover, in the hydrologic cycle it circulates from the heavens (condensation, precipitation) to earth and beneath (infiltration), to the sea and other large bodies of water (surface runoff, groundwater discharge), and finally back to the heavens (evaporation). These many forms represent a great circle of life—which one might argue also characterizes the circulation of the Spirit.
Third, water manifests a spectrum of traits often attributed to the divine. It can be patient and accommodating, flowing around obstacles, yet also has the power to wear down the greatest physical structures (or burst them apart through expanding ice). Water makes hard things smooth over time; it is also an amazing solvent and thus is rightly used in purification. It can be still and gentle but also relentless and ferocious. Surface water has the capacity to carry but also to drown—immersion can lead either to life or to death (the Bible is full of examples of both).
Finally, water is a symbol of justice. It is most substantial and alive when fluid, but can turn morbid if stagnant. It wants to flow downward, seeking level, a poignant metaphor of divine concern for the “lowest.” Thus Amos famously appeals for “justice to flow down like a perennial stream” (Amos 5:24; author’s translation).
Water thus provides a kind of metaphorical “map of God.” Conversely, it also figures fundamentally in God’s map of creation. To illustrate this, compare the two photographs below.
Above is an aerial photograph of the San Rafael Swell on the Colorado Plateau in Utah. It shows clearly that even in the most arid climate on the continent, the single most distinctive and defining feature is the way water flows. A theological reading of this universal geographical truism would conclude that water patterns are the chief design features of a creation that has not been re-engineered by human society.
In contrast, the image below is an aerial view of nearby Las Vegas, NV, whose patterns are typical of modern urban sprawl. What is evident from such an (over)built environment is not where water flows—that is almost impossible to discern—but rather where automobile traffic flows. It is virtually all artifice.
The profound differences between these two design patterns capture the essence of what is ecologically unsustainable about industrial civilization. If our defiance of nature (represented by the second image) has brought us to the brink of collapse, then a radical response is called for—that is, one that goes to the roots of how the earth was/is made (represented by the first image). We have lost our way as creatures of God’s biosphere, and only the map that is woven into creation can lead us home. That map is defined by water.
John Wesley Powell, the first non-native person to raft successfully down the Colorado River in the 1860s, gave us our first modern definition of a watershed:
It is that area of land, a bounded hydrologic system, within which all living things are inextricably linked by their common water course and where, as humans settled, simple logic demanded that they become part of the community.
The fact is, wherever we reside—city, suburb, or rural area—our lives are deeply intertwined within such a “bounded hydrologic system.” Precipitation hits the ridges and either flows into our watershed or into a neighboring one, drained by a watercourse and its tributaries (even if buried under concrete).
The area covered in the water’s journey from its origination in the natural hydrological cycle to its end point in a particular body of water such as a pond, lake, or ocean is the watershed. Each one is made up of a unique mix of habitats that influence each other, including forests, wetlands, fields and meadows, rivers and lakes, farms and towns. The 2,110 watersheds in the continental US come in all sizes. The Mississippi Basin is the 3rd largest watershed in the world, draining 41% of the lower 48 states into the Gulf of Mexico. The Ventura River watershed where I live is a scant 227 square miles.
All life is watershed-placed without exception—and our ignorance about this fact is disastrous. Brock Dolman, a permaculturist and founder of Occidental Art and Ecology Center in Northern California, argues that “watersheds underlie all human endeavors and form the foundation for all future aspirations and survival.” Cupping his hands, he invokes the metaphor of a cradle, which he calls a “Basin of Relations,” in which every living organism is interconnected and dependent on the health of the whole. This form of “social, local, intentional community with other life forms and inanimate processes, like the fire cycle and the hydrological cycle,” he says, represents “the geographic scale of applied sustainability, which must be regenerative, because we desperately are in need of making up for lost time.”
Watershed mapping is a practical tool for advancing our literacy in the actual landscapes that sustain us. It can help us re-imagine a world beyond maps that are social re-productions enshrining problematic historical legacies of colonization and exploitation, while rendering nature secondary (or altogether invisible). Kirkpatrick Sale’s definition of bioregionalism is helpful here:
Bio is from the Greek word for forms of life . . . and region is from the Latin regere, territory to be ruled. . . . They convey together a life-territory, a place defined by its life forms, its topography and its biota, rather than by human dictates; a region governed by nature, not legislature. And if the concept initially strikes us as strange, that may perhaps only be a measure of how distant we have become from the wisdom it conveys.
Below is a recent watershed map of the US imagined by John Lavey. Political boundaries are often straight (no continental US state is without one), while watershed ones never are. Straight lines are the first order of abstraction, alienating us from the topographical and hydrological realities that sustain life. How might our political culture change if our most basic unit of governance was “nature rather than legislature”?
Toward Watershed Discipleship
In the environmental movement, bioregional thought and practice has spread widely and matured deeply over the last quarter century. Yet this school of thought has been almost entirely ignored by Christian theology and ethics until very recently. However, I am convinced that a watershed paradigm not only holds the key to our survival as a species; it can also inspire the next great renewal of the church—in light of, not in spite of, the looming ecological endgame.
What would it mean for Christians to center our identity in the topography of creation rather than in the political geography of dominant cultural ideation, grounding our discipleship practices in the watershed in which we reside, within which everything must be engaged in terms of environmental resiliency and social justice?
In our education and organizing at Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries we are proposing “watershed discipleship” as a framing idea, which seems to be resonating widely. The phrase is an intentional triple entendre.
- It recognizes that we are in a watershed historical moment of crisis, which demands that environmental, social justice, and sustainability be integral to everything we do as Christians and as citizen inhabitants of specific places.
- It acknowledges the inescapably bioregional locus of an incarnational following of Jesus: our discipleship and the life of the local church necessarily take place in a watershed context.
- It suggests that we need to be disciples of our watersheds. In the New Testament, discipleship is a journey of learning from, following, and coming to trust the “rabbi”—which in this case is the “Book of Creation.” The challenge here, to paraphrase the argument made in 1968 by the Senegalese environmentalist Baba Dioum, is that
- We won’t save places we don’t love.
- We can’t love places we don’t know.
- We don’t know places we haven’t learned.
From the beginning of human history, nothing was more crucial to the survival and flourishing of traditional societies than literacy in and symbiotic relationship with one’s watershed. It remains the case today—but we have a long way to go to reconstruct the intimacy required to know and save our places.
Obviously, understanding contextual Christian mission fundamentally in terms of healing our world by restoring the social and ecological health of our respective watersheds is a perspective still marginal in our churches. Yet, I believe ecclesial communities re-grounded in their watersheds can make an enormous contribution to the wider historic struggle to reverse the looming ecological catastrophe—and in the process, recover the “terrestrial soul” of a faith tradition that too often tends toward docetism. Christians are deeply culpable in the present crisis, but we also have ancient resources for the deep shifts needed.
Watershed discipleship is an expression of Christian mission because it seeks to partner with God’s mission of healing. The Apostle Paul claims that creation is “groaning in travail” waiting for the “children of God” to be fully “revealed,” in order that we might partner with the divine work of liberation and healing (Rom 8:19–24a). This suggests that our primary human vocation is not to re-engineer creation for exclusive human benefit—an impulse biblically identified with the fall in Genesis. Rather, the mission of the church is to help humans rediscover our proper place in, and to work for the healing and preservation of, the community of creation.
Key to Creator’s ecological and eschatological redemption of creation is the renewing power of the water of life. This is previewed in Christian baptism, which in turn animates our mission to inhabit and incarnate that blessed hope in a thirsty world. Watershed discipleship can and should help define the shape of that mission in this historical moment of crisis.
Ched Myers is an activist theologian who has worked in social change movements for almost 40 years. His books include Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Orbis, 2008) and, most recently, Our God Is Undocumented: Biblical Faith and Immigrant Justice (with Matthew Colwell; Orbis, 2012). He is a co-founder of the Watershed Discipleship Alliance (http://watersheddiscipleship.org) and works with Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries in southern California (http://bcm-net.org). His publications can be found at http://chedmyers.org.
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